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On The Front Lines

U.S. Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Case of Football Coach Prohibited from Bowing Head During Team's Pre-Game Prayer, Lets Stand Prayer Ban

WASHINGTON, DC - In a blow to athletic coaches across the country, the United States Supreme Court has refused to weigh in on the question of whether or not high school football coaches have a right to silently bow their heads as a sign of respect while their student players offer a pre-game prayer.

In refusing to hear the case of high school football coach Marcus Borden, the Supreme Court has let stand a lower court ruling with chilling ramifications for coaches and teachers everywhere-namely, that Borden has no constitutional rights of liberty, expression or academic freedom in connection with his duties as a teacher and coach. Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute, acting as co-counsel for Coach Borden, had urged the U.S. Supreme Court to affirm that the liberties secured by the U.S. Constitution guarantee Borden's right to offer a simple, silent gesture of respect, whether he does so by silently bowing his head or taking a knee while his players say their pre-game prayer.

"This undermines a time-honored tradition that has less to do with religion than it does athletic tradition," said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. "It's a sad statement on our rights as Americans that schools are no longer bastions of freedom. We've become so politically correct and secularized that religious individuals who seek the same First Amendment rights as others are censored."

The American Football Coaches Association had filed an amicus in support of Borden, declaring that "when the federal courts interpret the Constitution in a way that intrudes into the locker room, invades the player-coach relationship, and undermines a coach's ability to maintain an atmosphere of mutual respect and team unity by showing deference to the prayers of this nation's youth, that concerns the AFCA."

Both briefs (TRI's and the AFCA's) are available at

The case arose in October 2005 after officials at East Brunswick High School adopted a policy prohibiting representatives of the school district from participating in student-initiated prayer. The policy prevented high school football coach Marcus Borden from bowing his head in a silent gesture of respect while his team offered a pre-game prayer, a regular part of the team's pre-game activities for over 25 years. School officials justified their actions by insisting that while student athletes have the constitutionally protected right to pray, that privilege does not extend to coaches, who are public employees and whose participation would violate the "separation of church and state." In July 2006, U.S. District Judge Dennis Cavanaugh declared that the school district violated Borden's constitutional rights to free speech, freedom of association and academic freedom when they prohibited him from silently bowing his head and "taking a knee" with his players. However, the school district, aided by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, challenged the court's decision before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, insisting that Borden has no constitutional rights of expression or academic freedom in connection with his duties as a teacher and coach. The appeals court ruled in the school's favor.

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